Feature

What to expect as agencies look to return to the workplace

The shift from WFH to WFW could be a long one.

What to expect as agencies look to return to the workplace

When the lockdown conditions – including working from home for all non-essential workers – were introduced on 23 March, they were an attempt to reduce Covid-19 transmission rates between people that would put an otherwise impossible strain on the health service’s ability to cope. With the first signs that these measures have been largely effective – despite the terrible human toll – thoughts are inevitably turning to when they can be eased and society and business return to something closer to normal, including changing from WFH back to WFW: work from work.

The government has, so far, been cautious to reveal its exit strategy, instead sticking to the famous mantra that the public should "stay home, protect the NHS, save lives". But with building sites and some retailers that had otherwise been shut, such as B&Q, opening their doors (albeit with restrictions), it’s clear that other sectors want to follow suit soon. Equally, the economic impact – estimated at £2.4bn per day by the Centre for Economic and Business Research – is something that the government will want to keep to a minimum to avoid the deep recession that some commentators fear.

But where does advertising – a service business – sit in the hierarchy of sectors that want to return, given that, first, its place in the consumer supply chain is on the fringes and, second, it has shown that it is possible to use technology to carry on with its own economic activity during lockdown?

Getting back to the office

Like many, Charlie Rudd, chief executive of Leo Burnett London, says he can’t wait to return to the office: "I miss the coffee-machine chats, the impromptu creative reviews in the corridors and, yes, the gossiping and piss-take across desks." But he thinks the ad industry should "be at the back of the queue" when it comes to the gradual return to offices. "We have demonstrated admirably how effective we can be when working remotely. The quantity and quality of our work whilst in lockdown is yet more evidence of how proud we should be of the UK advertising industry," he continues. "Yes, our full power will be needed more than ever to help kick-start the economy, but I now know we can all do it from home."

Part of the problem with a wholescale return to work is that historically agencies have been based around the industrial office concept, first envisaged in the mid-18th century but which really came to the fore as service industries grew in the 20th century. According to guidelines that have been released under the European Union occupational safety and health recommendations regarding a post-Covid-19 return to the workplace, employers need to undertake a risk assessment to put in place control measures to eliminate the risk – and if this is not possible, minimise worker exposure. "Start first with collective measures and, if necessary, supplement them with individual measures, such as personal protective equipment," the guidelines state.

While some of its measures are applicable to agencies, such as reducing as much as possible physical contact between workers during meetings or during breaks, other guidelines, such as placing an impervious barrier between workers, especially if they are not able to keep a two-metre distance from each other, might not be. The report also suggests that If close contact is unavoidable, keep it to less than 15 minutes – this may be tricky for presentations and for contact between agency staff and clients or outside suppliers. There are, of course, ways around this, including staggered working to ensure that desk restrictions and social distancing can be maintained.

Changing practices

However, agencies seem to be facing up to the fact that working practices won’t return to a pre-Covid-19 world any time soon – if at all. Mat Goff, joint chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB, says: "Sadly, it seems that we will be living with this virus amongst us for some long time yet. It seems likely from what we are seeing in other countries that any return will be phased and will have various limitations in place to keep people safe, and we are watching and learning from the experiences of agencies in other parts of the world as they navigate their return to the office."

Goff is sceptical whether new working practices proposed by the EU will be an effective solution. "Aside from ensuring everyone stays safe, the biggest watch-out in a gradual return will be keeping the heart of what we do accessible to all," he explains. "The tech of lockdown has kept business challenge and creative solution in the middle of the table, where everyone can contribute. Staggered hours, week-on-week-off rotas, split teams and other approaches that could keep us compliant with any new regulations may inadvertently result in people being cut out of the process. We will be trying to keep a seat around the table for everyone or our thinking and our ideas will suffer as a result."

Rudd thinks that the physical spaces of agencies cannot be as easily reconfigured as in other sectors – and nor are its working practices. "Our lifts, corridors and desks aren’t designed for being two metres apart and our floorplan configurations have been based on maximising space utilisation, not minimising our social contact," he points out. "Some employers predict closing office communal areas; but, in agencies, that is often where we have the most space and our most productive meetings, so we’ll need these more than before. We anticipate that the return will create an office working vibe more akin to an agency at a weekend."

Moreover, Karen Martin, managing director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, is mindful of the need to take particular care of those who might be more susceptible to the virus than others. She says: "There are also those who won’t be able to return to the office at the same time – those with health conditions, pregnancies or vulnerable family members to care for. The important thing is that we are empathetic to all these different needs and that we facilitate a new way of working that works for all. I have no doubt that we’re going to see more requests for flexible working come in, for instance."

The importance of providing a safe and flexible working environment is equally the priority for Stephanie Marks, managing director of Havas Media: "We’re looking at everything from staggered returns and travel times, enabling different ways to get to work that avoid peak times on public transport, providing masks and temperature scanners, one-way systems in and out of the building and abiding by social-distancing rules in how we use our desks and meeting rooms."

Mental needs

Aside from the physical and medical needs when responding to a post-lockdown world, other agencies are looking at the mental issues that the lockdown may have caused – this is very much in line with the EU’s OSH directives, which state that workers may be returning with enhanced levels of stress and anxiety and may also have lost a loved one. The guidelines state: "Workers might be worried about an increased chance of infection at the workplace and may not want to return. It is important to understand their concerns, provide information about the measures taken and the support available to them." 

This is something that Michael Sugden, group chief executive of VCCP, is particularly mindful of beyond physical changes to the office. "The mental – this is the more challenging part because everybody’s attitude about the risk of returning to the office is different. And that is fine. They are different because everybody’s circumstances are different," he says. "Some commute by Tube, others don’t. Some will have childcare/home-schooling considerations, others will not. Some have lost friends or family, others haven’t. The important thing is to respect these differences and ensure no-one is pressurised to return to the office before they feel comfortable doing so."

Whatever happens, and whenever that may be, it’s not going to be easy and agency staff shouldn’t expect to come streaming back into their offices like kids entering the school gates on the first day of term. However, by including employees in the decision-making process, given that they are the ones who may ultimately be putting their lives on the line until a vaccine is found, some progress towards working with colleagues in a real, rather than virtual, way may soon be possible. 

Martin concludes: "I don’t like to talk about ‘getting back to normal’, because when we do return to the office it will be anything but. So when the time comes, we will ask our people what works for them and we will make that work."

WFW may never be the same again.